Popular information-gathering tools can easily be misused
This is the time of year students head back to college to learn about biology, economics and various other disciplines. It’s also the time when colleges learn a lot more about students themselves.
This year, during the pandemic, there’s more concern than ever about the amount of information colleges are gathering. Many of the schools that are bringing students back to campus are requiring them to use contact tracing apps. These apps track students’ movements and alert students when they come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. Schools maintain that the apps are necessary to halt the spread of the virus. But privacy advocates worry that the surveillance trend is going too far, too fast.
Colleges’ information-gathering techniques are getting more sophisticated every year. They’re tracking students’ movements a number of ways – through GPS coordinates, Wi-Fi connections and contactless chips in ID cards. They use the data to track attendance and monitor the physical sites students visit. They use video, audio and still images they collect around campus as security tools – for example, to spot a wanted criminal entering a student gathering. But the technologies can be misused, as well.
If you’re using a college computer or tapping into a college network, the institution can watch what you’re doing. Software can monitor students’ browsing history – tracking every site they visit and logging everything they search for. Colleges can capture usernames and passwords. Spyware installed on university devices can give administrators full control over a computer, giving them access to files, pictures, text messages – you name it.
Even if you’re taking classes virtually, colleges have ways of watching you. Many colleges are contracting with “online proctor” companies to monitor students while they’re taking tests. These services tap into students’ cameras, microphones and computer screens to ensure test takers follow a predetermined set of rules. Some use facial-recognition and eye-tracking technology to try to detect cheating.
How do you protect yourself from too much college oversight? It’s hard. If a college requires use of a contact tracing app, you’re bound to their rules. But there are other steps you can take to mitigate the control your school has over your information. You start by educating yourself about how you’re being tracked. Then you minimize the amount of data they’re able to collect.
Colleges likely won’t want to share a lot of information about surveillance methods. But make sure to ask questions and push for answers. If there’s a contact tracing app, for example, which one is it? How does it work? Online accounts describe challenges each app is facing and offer thoughts about what students can do about them.
Find out about the school’s Wi-Fi network, laptop policies and security policies. Ask questions about what information is being gathered and what’s being shared. Run their answers by friends and people who are familiar with security practices. Research vendor policies and industry best practices.
Then, take steps yourself to limit your exposure to your school’s surveillance.
College is a free and open atmosphere where you meet new friends and exchange more information than ever before. It’s not a good environment to let down your guard on social media. Enable multi-factor authentication whenever possible. Change your settings to make them private. If you need a public account, separate public statements from private ones. Then, once you’ve secured your settings, make sure friends aren’t sharing sensitive data you don’t want public.
The contact tracing apps require tracking technology, but other apps may not. Check your phone settings and application permissions, and turn off location tracking when you can. Colleges don’t need to know what pizza places you frequent or whether your library time drops precipitously.
If you’re filing college documents, researching classes or performing other official campus functions, it’s fine to use college resources. But if you’re sharing private information, keep it off school devices, accounts and networks. Even if your school claims to monitor your activities only on campus, information can get exposed if you’re mixing work with play.
So, make sure to access personal accounts only on your own devices and networks you trust. Don’t use your school email address for any personal online accounts. And do all your web browsing outside of the prying eyes of school devices and networks.
Don’t forget the basics. Use encryption on your devices, protect your passwords by changing them frequently and using a password manager, and choose the tools you want to use to protect the information you want to protect.